The storm that has hit the Middle East obliges each state to choose whether to enter the scientific age or not. If it does not, it will have no growth. The great and intriguing debate in Egypt today is about the constitution, in effect about whether to give women freedom or not. It is here that the Arab Spring will be judged. President Obama asked me who I think is preventing democracy in the Middle East. I told him, “The husbands.” The husband does not want his wife to have equal rights. Without equal rights, it will be impossible to save Egypt, because if women are not educated, the children are not educated. People who cannot read and write can’t make a living. They are finished.
Domino Theory is making a sustained comeback. The theory first emerged in the 1950s. The idea was that if a country fell to Communism neighboring countries would be more likely to fall as well. Domino Theory was the reason we became involved in Vietnam. If Vietnam fell to Communism so, too, would Laos and Cambodia and Thailand. The progression of the Soviet menace had to be stopped at all costs.
After the fall of the Wall Domino Theory went out of vogue. It wasn’t until a group of Soviet experts took on substantial national security responsibility in the Bush Administration that Domino Theory came back into style. Condoleezza Rice, a Soviet expert, pushed the theory that an invasion of Iraq would lead to a functioning democracy that would then pressure other countries in the region to democratize. This theory — Reverse Domino Theory, if you like — was the driving force behind the American invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t WMD, it wasn’t Saddam’s despotism. It was an overriding belief that a democratic Arab world would offer America sustained security. This is because democracies don’t fight other democracies.
The Bush Administration abandoned its Middle East democracy agenda after Islamist parties made gains in Gaza and Egypt around the beginning of the Administration’s second term. Those events were enough for Israel and Egypt to convince the Bush Administration that democratic reform wouldn’t necessarily lead to peace and security — in fact, it could lead to the opposite. Suddenly Mubarak looked like our last, best hope for sustained stability in the Middle East. This was ironic since al-Qaeda’s primary complaint about the US is that we prop up undemocratic regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt.
So Domino Theory made a comeback after 9/11 and then went out of vogue again about four years later. And now it’s back. Tunisia, now Egypt. It looks likely that the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, once fully democratized, will be reasonably American friendly. They look more like newly democratized Eastern European countries than Iran. And so we return to Domino Theory, or Reverse Domino Theory. Will more Middle Eastern regimes fall? Will Yemen be next? Syria? Will Bahrain fall? If Bahrain does fall, will the new regime still allow us to base The Fifth Fleet on their soil?
The questions have returned. And, ironically, the only functioning Middle Eastern democracy is the nation most vociferously opposed to further Arab democracy. The Israelis are terrified. They have relied on anti-democratic strongmen to ensure peace along most of their borders. How can they rely on a vaguely Islamist — or even Islamist-influenced — Egyptian government to maintain peace?
The fears are overblown. First, the dominoes will not fall nearly as quickly or nearly as forcefully as the Israelis fear. Bahrain will see change. Libya may see change. Chaos may reign in Libya, but Libya can’t get much unfriendlier. The reality is that these kinds of grand realignments always take longer than people expect. Israel and the United States will have ample time to realign their foreign policies to meet the new reality.
We won’t see a dramatically changed Middle East in six months. It’ll take a decade. Most of the undemocratic regimes in the Middle East will successfully put down their nascent revolutions — the revolutionary movements in countries like Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Libya and the others are much less organized and enjoy a much smaller base of support than the revolutionary movement in Egypt. This could change at any moment but it currently appears unlikely… these regimes have learned from Egypt’s mistakes and are responding with strong carrots and strong sticks (a strategy that mixes generous pay raises and even outright bribes with brutal repression of protest). This strategy is likely to work in the short term but not in the middle to long term.
Meanwhile we have to understand the nature of the revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt and other locations where they are likely to be successful. These are not the Islamist uprisings that bin Laden has pushed for over the past two decades. These are movements led by dissatisfied youth who have fallen in love with Western economics and Western ideals. These movements have more in common with Otpor than they do the Taliban. These movements will liberalize their nation’s economies and social structures. They will allow some Islamist influence, but the Islamist influence will be in the style of Abdullah Gül rather than Mullah Omar.
At the end of the day Israel and the United States can take comfort in Democratic Peace Theory, coupled with a basic fact: nations make war when it makes sense for them to make war. Countries with huge surpluses of military-aged males make war. Countries with economics going in the wrong direction make war. Countries with governments that need to distract the people from disaster at home make war. Countries on the right track do not make war.
We’ll all be okay. And Israel and the United States — Israel especially — must place itself on the right side of history. Trying in vain to prop up undemocratic regimes will only set Israel back. Memories are long in the Arab world. Being on the wrong side of these movements will ensure animosity towards Israel in these country’s new governments. But being on the right side of history… clearly stating that democracy is in Israel’s interest… clearly stating that Israel’s thoughts and prayers and benedictions lay with the protesters, although Israel does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. This is how Israel ensures its safety and security for the next fifty years. By embracing the democracy movement. It’s too bad that Netenyahu is an unreconstructed Likudnik. Oh, how we yearn for Sharon and Barak and, yes, Peres. And maybe most of all Rabin. Generals who learned peace over captains any day.
And so the White House waited, watched, danced, and shuffled — and probably talked too much.
But such are the travails of a great power having to live in the bed that it has made. And the story of contradictions in U.S. policy and America’s conundrums are far from over. The real challenge the United States will face in the post-Mubarak era is that Egypt has been, and is now still, a praetorian state where the military holds tremendous power. And the United States has an interest in maintaining close ties with that military as well as encouraging political reform. Therein lies the next conundrum. With great apologies to W.B. Yeats: I wonder what new bargain slouches toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born?
I think President Mubarak needs to be treated as he deserved over the years, because he has been a good friend. He’s been a good man, a good friend and ally to the United States. We need to remember that.
Dick Cheney, reminding us that a friend is a friend forever.
This is similar to what Harry Whittington said when Cheney shot him in the face:
“My family and I are deeply sorry for everything Vice President Cheney and his family have had to deal with. We hope that he will continue to come to Texas and seek the relaxation that he deserves.”
Dean Acheson used to disparage his critics by comparing them to the farmer who pulled up his seedlings every evening to see how successfully they were taking root. It was a good line, but it did not really describe the success of American policy in the early Cold War. Acheson did not simply plant the right seeds and wait patiently for the harvest. Nor did Henry Kissinger or George Shultz. Effective policy always has in it more experimentation, improvisation, even process of elimination, than its authors like to admit. If a year from now, the Obama administration has not run through at least three or four new ways of thinking about its problems in the Middle East, I’ll be very surprised.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Egyptian men and women outside the halls of power have challenged their rulers and have sought a voice in state affairs, only to be stymied by the forces of order. Up until the 1950s, foreign troops from Britain and France put down the popular uprisings. Foreign interventions to suppress popular demands has left a strong suspicion that the big powers in the world, at present the Americans, will in the final analysis defeat the wishes of the people. Since then, the Egyptian military has put down those movements of popular dissent that proved beyond the capabilities of the security forces. Yet, never before have the soldiers faced such large numbers. If the military is to be taken at its word, it is no longer available to repress protesters. Nor is this surprising, given the fact that the military is a conscript army and those who would be called upon to curb the actions of the people would have to turn against their own relatives and friends. The only hope for Mubarak and his National Democratic Party is that foreign powers will come to the rescue as has occurred so frequently in the past. At the head of these powers would be the United States, which has relied on the Mubarak government to maintain political stability and support for American policies in this volatile region. The Americans may be willing to sacrifice Mubarak, but they are unlikely to view favorably a government in which Muslim elements have a strong voice. Even so, how the ruling elements and the army will restore calm short of allowing free and democratic elections, with possibilities for Muslim Brothers to enter the government, remains the big dilemma for the ruling group in Egypt and its American backers.